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Italy in crisis as Berlusconi loses immunity from corruption cases

October 8, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome Published: October 8 2009

Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government was plunged last night into its deepest crisis since coming to office 18 months ago after Italy’s top court ruled that a law passed by parliament giving the prime minister immunity from prosecution was unconstitutional.

The 15 judges of the constitutional court ruled by 9 to 6 that the law breached the article of the constitution making all citizens equal before the law. Such a change, it said, would require a two-thirds majority in parliament, not the simple majority it received in June 2008.

Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul, had been facing two trials on charges of corruption when the immunity law suspended the process. The constitutional court’s ruling paves the way for those trials to resume unless the government makes a renewed effort in parliament to grant him immunity. A two-thirds majority appears beyond the ruling coalition’s reach, however.

The government immediately responded by calling the ruling “politically motivated”. It said the prime minister, the government and its majority in parliament “will continue to govern just as it has on all occasions since the April 2008 elections”.

Ministers had earlier spoken confidently of a ruling in their favour. The possibility of a decision against Mr Berlusconi had sparked widespread speculation he would react by calling snap elections, but his aides had dismissed that option.

Mr Berlusconi on Monday stated he intended to remain in office until the end of his term in 2013. He was reacting then to a separate court statement, issued by a Milan judge in a civil case, which said he was “co-responsible” for bribing a judge in 1991 during a takeover battle for the Mondadori publishing house by Mr Berlusconi’s Fininvest media empire.

His political standing already weakened by months of probing by newspapers into his personal life, the withdrawal of immunity from prosecution will further handicap Mr Berlusconi and the government.

Italy’s business community has voiced dismay that the government, despite its comfortable majority, appears paralysed in its efforts to introduce economic reforms with the country in a second year of recession.

The ruling against Mr Berlusconi will test the unity of his coalition, with uneasy allies starting to manoeuvre in anticipation of a new era of politics without the dominant figure of the past 15 years.

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